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Caminiti's Death Met With Sadness, but Not Shock

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page D03

ATLANTA, Oct. 11 -- There were tears shed for Ken Caminiti at Turner Field on Monday, one day after the 1996 National League most valuable player died of a heart attack in New York at age 41. There were words of admiration for his raging competitiveness and hard-nosed approach to the game. There was anger among his former Houston Astros teammates over the way Caminiti's self-destructive side prevailed over the kind, gentle side everyone loved.

What there was not, however, was surprise.

Ken Caminiti, a former All-Star third baseman, retired in 2001 after 15 seasons in the majors. He died of a heart attack at the age of 41. (Joe Skipper - Reuters File Photo)

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"It's not something that was unexpected," said Phil Garner, manager of the Astros, for whom Caminiti played 10 of his 15 major league seasons. "My first feeling [after getting the news late Sunday] was anger. He had so many people trying to steer him in the right direction. Craig [Biggio] and Jeff [Bagwell] probably saved his life the first time around. That speaks to the power of the drugs."

The New York City medical examiner's office, which performed an autopsy on Caminiti on Monday, said it could be 10 days before a cause of death is determined, since toxicology results could take that long to process.

However, across baseball, there was already an understanding that what killed Caminiti were the demons that he had battled for years.

Caminiti fought drug and alcohol problems for much of his adult life. He admitted to using steroids as a player. Last Tuesday he was sentenced to 180 days in a Houston jail for violating his probation by using cocaine, but was given credit for time already served and was freed.

"It was a situation where everyone around him hoped he'd beat those things and get his life together," said New York Yankees pitcher Kevin Brown, Caminiti's teammate on the San Diego Padres' 1998 pennant-winning team.

"One thing he didn't understand, really, is how many people out there loved him," said Astros left fielder Craig Biggio. "There's a lot of people who tried to help him."

Garner met with some Astros veterans prior to Monday night's Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves, but said he did not expect the team to have any formal remembrance of Caminiti. He last played for the Astros in 1999 and 2000, then split the 2001 season, his last, between the Texas Rangers and Braves.

"I just think if we can go and bust our butts as hard as we can and try to win," Bagwell said, "that would be as good a tribute at this particular moment that we can [make]."

"We'd all like for him to remembered as a competitive, hard-nosed guy who would just absolutely play through" any kind of pain, Garner said. "He was a winner. He was a winner all the way to the World Series."

Caminiti played the game with what seemed to be a perpetual scowl on his face, made even more menacing by a thick goatee. He played the game hard, and he played it well, amassing 239 homers, including 40 (to go along with 130 RBI and a .326 average) during his MVP season.

"You looked at him -- he looked mean," Biggio said. "He played the game mean. But off the field he was a teddy bear. . . . I just think he was probably the greatest third baseman I ever played with or against."

"He was one of the toughest players I've ever been around," said Boston Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein, who worked in the Padres' front office when Caminiti played there. "He had a great persona, but he was misunderstood."

What made Caminiti a permanent part of baseball's social landscape was not his play on the field, but his admission -- in a Sports Illustrated interview in 2002 -- that he had used steroids. At the time, he was the first former player to admit doing so. And his claim that steroid use was rampant in the game alienated him with many current players.

Biggio and Bagwell, two longtime friends, acknowledged Monday that they had not spoken to Caminiti in years.

"Obviously, he's been through a lot of different things in the last couple of years," Bagwell said. "It's not as easy to keep in contact."

To Garner, it was clear that the steroid use stemmed from the same ultra-competitiveness that endeared Caminiti to teammates and fans.

"In the end," Garner said, "I think probably some of the attributes we loved about him were things he couldn't control himself -- and that was his intense competitiveness, his desire to be the best."

Staff writer Jorge Arangure Jr. contributed to this report from New York.


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